I will admit that I’m not a seasoned photographer, so take everything I say with a grain of salt. It could be all wrong…
When we started the web site, none of us were very good photographers. We started out using a Canon Ti, but this was only because it was what we had around the shop. We thought anything SLR would be good enough to take product shots, but it turns out that there is more than that to photography. We’ve learned a lot in a little amount of time…
These days we have a Canon T3i, which was recently discontinued in favor of the new Canon T5. I can’t speak directly to the T5, so what follows is about the T3i. Compared to the original Ti, the T3i is so much more productive. The Ti did not allow you to preview shots in the LCD screen before snapping the picture. With the T3i you can see the image in the LCD screen, go 10x on the zoom, and know that your shot is going to be in focus. You can also do “auto-bracketing”, which tells the camera to take multiple shots with slightly different settings so that you’re more likely to get one with the right lighting.
Like most folks we thought that megapixel count was everything when we started. We were way off. For our first lens we got a Canon 50mm prime lens, and it is razor sharp. There is also a cheaper alternative that you might want to consider as well. We never use the lens that came with the camera anymore. I highly recommend this lens because you’re pretty much guaranteed excellent shots with it. I have taken picture of my kids with it and you can see detailed reflections in their eyes when you zoom in. The only down side is that it’s not a zoom lens, so you will have to walk closer or farther away from your subject to get everything in frame. The quality is unbelievable and you’ll never use the lens that came with the camera again (maybe you’ll be smart and just get the camera body and a good separate lens).
Once you have the camera and the right lens, the next trick is learning how to take the right shots. For crisp pictures you need a tripod and to lock the camera in ISO 100. Just push the ISO button and select “100” instead of “auto”. This will help eliminate any graininess from your shots and let you zoom in and still have detail. Then, you’ll want to put your camera in “aperture priority” mode. This is “Av” on your mode selection dial. With such a low ISO setting the camera will have to hold the shutter open for a few seconds, typically. This is why you need the tripod: bumps = blurs.
Now you’re almost ready. Most of the time you’ll want to have all of your product in focus at the same time. To do this, you’ll have to use a large f-stop. The 50mm prime lens can do f/1.2 but this will put a only a tiny section of the shot in focus with other sections are left out of focus: a photography technique called bokeh. This is cool if you want to bring attention to a specific section of your shot, but probably not the best choice for a product photo. So turn the dial next to the shutter button to change the f-stop to f/8 or even more. f/22 will put a lot of the shot in focus, but as you go higher in f value the shutter will have to stay open even longer. Again, a tripod is a must. There is no harm in going as high as you can with the f-stop.
Put the camera on a 2 second timer (or get a kit with a wireless shutter control) to make sure that you don’t accidentally budge the camera while the shutter is open. Then, take your shot. If you want something a little brighter you can adjust the exposure by holding the Av button down while turning the dial next to the shutter button. This is similar to adding “fill light” in tools like Google Picasa. This will extend the time the shutter has to stay open, too.
With these techniques I think you’ll be able to take some great product shots, but sometimes you will want to be able to take extreme closeups or get shots of small items. You can get a macro lens to do this, or you could use inexpensive extension tubes. These just snap in between the camera and the lens to put the lens a little farther away. The more space between the lens and the camera, the more magnified your shot will be.
Here’s an example of a shot of a penny with all three extension tubes used at the same time. Click on these pics to see them close up!
The first shot shows how wide the field of view is. WordPress has a 2MB limit on the files I can add in, so I added a second shot. The second shot shows a cropped down portion of the full image but maintains the full detail of the original shot.
Of course there are some downsides to using extension tubes instead of a real macro lens. I don’t have a real macro lens (though if you buy me one, I’ll take real good care of it!) but my understanding is that the macro lens will allow you to focus from close up all the way to infinity. With extension tubes there is only a small band where the shot will be in focus, so you’ll have to adjust the distance from your camera to your subject to get within that “band of focus”
Anyhow, I will say that we learned a lot about technique going through this process but I think our pictures have really improved and it has helped to show off the attention to detail we have for our products.